“That’s very compelling, but are you the only one who can use it?”

I was asked this question when demoing a research interface at a presentation recently. It’s a good question, and I think one we in the research HCI field tip-toe around a lot.

The answer I gave was that concept interfaces are meant to explore a new idea. A successful concept presents an idea what is compelling enough to warrant future work. Any interface, ever, is going to require a ton of polish. I specifically cited the 80/20 ratio, where 20% of the project appears to take 80% of the work. That final 20% of the project, of the design of your new interface, is going to take so much work that you’re out of the realm of research and into regular UI engineering.

It’s really hard to figure out where to draw the line between research and polish. If you’re trying to describe a new way of adaptively moving buttons around, it needs to be polished enough to be obvious, even if the buttons aren’t their final sizes. However, it hurts a little when people note that the button sizes aren’t quite right when, you know, I’m trying to figure out how to make them move.

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I Need a Better Distributed Notes Service

I sync many, many plain text notes between my phone and various computers I use during the day. Some of these are little reminders, like what I need to buy for dinner, some of these are freeform narrative ideas about a story, and some of these are links of stuff to read. I’m looking for something simple are barebones, but have been having trouble finding something. I use Trello for managing projects, and Wunderlist for items that either have a deadline or a “checklist” property to them. I need a system that catches everything else.

I’ve used SimpleNote for a while, but its Android app seems to be behaving poorly, and its missing a few features I need, such as non-destructive merging. I tried Evernote, but its Cloud-y-ness makes it unworkable for me.

Minimum Feature Set
I own the data

There is no sync to the cloud every time I want to load something, there is local search, and I can export data out of the app just as simply as dragging it from one folder to another on my computer. Copying-and-pasting, or emailing to myself, is not good enough.

Non-destructive merging

When I edit a note from one computer, then as I’m heading out the door and want to edit to it from my phone before it has synced, this should not erase any edit history of the note, or it should at least warn me. I’ve had this happen multiple times with SimpleNote. Dropbox has a best-of-the-worst solutions by making a conflicted copy, which does not prevent working with an open file. Something like a line-by-line merge resolution that I can do at my leisure would be amazing, but possibly difficult to design.

Usable from multiple computers, and a single mobile device

I just need access from multiple platforms.

Unified editing and reading mode on mobile

“Editing” mode and “Reading” mode should not be different. I should not have to go into a separate mode to correct a spelling mistake or fix an error. The experience of tapping on a word I want to edit, then realizing I’m in read mode, then going to click on the edit button, then going back to the word, is very frustrating. I’m looking at you, Evernote.

Unified inter- and intra-document search

When I search for a string, it should be able to tell me if there is multiple instances of a word within a doc, and be able to iterate through them. Notational Velocity (which wraps SimpleNote) does not support this. Ideally, if there are many instances of a string within a doc, search should be able to display that without overwhelming results from other docs.

Things I don’t need
The app to hang while it is syncing

When I open the app to write a note, I should be able to write a note. If I’m waiting for an update on a note to check it, that can easily be indicated.

Rich text, attachments, etc
Another cloud service to depend on

Ideally it works with Dropbox.

Folders, Tags

If I have a good search function, this is not necessary.

Multiple authors

If I need this, I’ll use Google Docs.

Features that would be nice
Automatic hyperlinking of URLs and phone numbers

Don’t make me use copy-and-paste when there is something quicker.

A way to view edit history

Mostly this helps diagnose when merging breaks. But the dates of certain edits are useful when tracking ideas change.

Does this exist, pretty please?

And yes, I know:

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Learning from Feedback

As the head chef of a new 5-Star restaurant, you are anxiously preparing for the opening in three months. Your menu is mostly set, and you’ve talked about your ideas with your food industry friends and they’re excited. You want to try out some of your dishes on people who aren’t in the industry, so you invite over a friend that you haven’t seen in a while.. Your guest arrives about 5 minutes before the dish is done and sits at the table in your kitchen. You make small talk as you fill his plate with some noodles and chunks of shrimp and some sauce except it’s all cooler than that because you’re a bad-ass chef and this writer isn’t. You put the plate in front of him, and pass him a fork and knife. You lean against the counter still wearing your apron, a little too antsy to sit, but make sure you don’t stare him down as he eats.

[Guest eats for a couple minutes]

Guest: Huh

Chef: Pardon?

Guest: Yeah, it’s good!

Chef: Great! Thanks!

Guest: It’s just that…

Chef: What?

Guest: Usually, at least this is how I think it is in fancy restaurants, but I think I’m supposed to get a spoon.

Chef: Oh no, is the sauce too runny? [You turn to grab a spoon from a drawer].

Guest: Oh, the sauce is fine. I just think you probably will want to give the guests a spoon at your restaurant. I don’t need a spoon for this dish, but you probably want to have spoons available.

Chef: Oh [You put the spoon down next to his plate.] Sure. Well, obviously.

Guest: As for the food, I really like it.

Chef: Good. Can you tell me what you like? How’s the arrangement? Does the shrimp go well with the sauce?

Guest: Yeah, all that works. I think the plate is a little banged up though. If I came to a fancy restaurant and was served on a plate like this, I would think it wasn’t that great of a place.

[The plate you’ve given him the dish on is a large circular white ceramic plate. It's generic - we all have one. You have a couple mismatched plates of this size scavenged from other housemates you’ve lived with over the years. This might be one of the older ones. It’s definitely clean and safe to eat on, but there are some chips around the edge.]

Chef:Oh. For the restaurant, we’re actually ordering these gorgeous new plates that match the interior decoration. Can you tell me about the food?

Guest: Hm…[he takes another mouthful of food and slowly chews it as he looks down at this dish. Finally, he swallows again.] I’m just really distracted by this plate.

Chef: Should I…put it on another one?

Guest: Yeah, that would be good.

[You look through your cupboards for a nice, new plate you got as a present from your grandmother. You find it in the back: pristine, but dusty. You spend a few minutes rinsing it off and drying it while your guest sits there, arms crossed, waiting for you. Finally, you transfer the dish from his original plate to your grandma’s by tilting the first plate to one side and letting it slide from one to the other. You put the original, dejectedly chipped plate in the sink and turn back to face him.]

Guest: Hmm, the presentation of the food isn’t so good now.

Chef: I’d really like to hear how the tastes go together. I can spend lots of time on presentation later, but for now I just want to know if it tastes good. I’m just trying things out.

Guest: Oh. Well…the noodles were a little hard. You probably need to cook them for longer.

[You actually used a type of noodle that is supposed to be a little hard, and gets harder when boiled for longer. If anything, you might have over-cooked them because you’re not used to them. It’s some new gluten whatever thing. I’m obviously making this up.]

Chef: [consider explaining new noodle type, decide not to.] Noted.

Guest: I mean, when I cook noodles, usually I pull one out every few minutes and test it. You probably just cooked it for the amount of time it said on the package and then took it off boil. That’s a common mistake.

Chef: Right.

Guest: How long did you cook them for?

Chef: Actually, it’s a little different. Don’t worry about it. Tell me what you think about the sauce.

Guest: I feel like you’re ignoring me though. Cooking noodles right is really important, and honestly not that hard. They’re, like, carbs. It’s the foundation of the food pyramid. Right now, they’re much chewier than I’m used to.

Chef: It’s a new type of noodle. You have to cook them a different way. I’m still learning with them.

Guest: Yeah, you definitely screwed up by not cooking them long enough.

Chef: Right.

Guest: The sauce needs more cayenne pepper, I think.

[The dish is pretty spice as-is. Definitely on the upper-bound of white people tolerance.]

Chef: Oh really? Man, I thought it was pretty spicy.

Guest: Oh no, the spicyness is perfect right now. It just needs more cayenne pepper.

Chef: Why do you say that?

Guest: Hm. It… it just doesn’t seem right.

Chef: Can you tell me what doesn’t seem right?

Guest: For something like this, it kind of reminds me of Pad Thai. Pad Thai comes with that sauce sometimes on the side. I really like that sauce. This sauce just doesn’t look right.

Chef: Oh, you mean chile paste?

Guest: Yeah, the red sauce! This sauce should be more red. Cayenne pepper is red, you could use some of that.

Chef: Oh. Yes. Thanks.

[Mostly silence, with some more small talk as the guest finishes up his food. When he finishes, he gets up and shakes your hand, which turns into a hug. He wishes you luck with the restaurant and heads out while you clean up the kitchen.]

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I Love the Rain

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Players are Jerks to NPCs in Real Life, Too

A non-player character (NPC) is anyone you encounter in a game who is not a player themselves. They are controlled by the game, whether a human game/dungeon master or a computer simulation.

Player characters (PCs), the in-game characters controlled by the players, are notoriously abusive to NPCs. Since the universe exists and moves forward for the purpose of pleasing the player characters, any development of the NPCs is secondary. At best, they are a justification for why the PCs must do a particular action in the universe, and at worst they are the result of a game designer trying to force their aspirational writing on the players.

There are oodles of anecdotes in tabletop role-playing games where the players have been jerks to NPCs. There are superlative video examples of cases in videogames where players abuse NPCs. I don’t mean direct, violent tortuous physical abuse – though that is part of many games, causing discomfort of anyone looking over the gamer’s shoulder. When players are being jerks to NPCs, I’m talking about interacting with them in such a way that undermines their existence. That dismisses them as valid people. In a way, this is much worse than direct violence.

It’s all well and good, and frankly expected, if you’re a highwayman character, to sneak into a shop in the middle of the night and kill the shopowner and his family and rob the shop for all it’s worth. This is not abuse at all – this is faithfully realistic medieval fantasy simulation. However, being a jerk to an NPC is when you discover (thanks to other online jerks) that if you put a bucket on their head, they won’t take it off by themselves, and you can rob their shop in complete safety since they will not see you putting the entire contents of the shop in your pockets. When you remove the pot again, they will be courteous and not infer that you stole from them, and go on with their merry, but very serious, little NPC lives, significantly poorer.

Tabletop role-players have, in particular, been referred to as sociopathic kleptomaniacs. A game location will be populated with serious NPCs with quaint lives of their own. The NPCs’ day might be as simple as really wanting an apple, while their deeper desires might be wanting to appear more mature in their patriarch’s eyes, so they have a chance of inheriting the family fortune and thus appear more desirable in the eyes of the lord’s daugher in the neighbouring city. However, players are trained to look for game structure. They want a QUEST, a hero’s journey. Show up in any market (I live near Chinatown, so this is personally feasible) and starting talking to people. No one will casually spout convenient quests – unless by quest you mean purchasing these fantastic items! But seriously, game designers, and I’m lumping in Dungeon Masters with them, by necessity make a quests appear obvious. There is a tension between a nice, well-written environment and a bullet-point, quest environment. Players feel a sence of (pyrrhic) accomplishment if they’ve cut through the writing to find the underlying quest. The faster they check checkboxes, the more game they’re playing. But, playing through a well-written environment in a game while looking for The Quest is about as damaging as reading a book and knowing you’re going to have to get Three Key Themes out of it for an essay.

In a recent trip to Sydney, I checked out Sydney Interactive Theatre. It was advertised as an “interactive adventure” where your quest is to connect some guy and some lady who were in hiding, etc. The group of people who took in the experience with me numbered six. A man in a fedora and 1930s-era clothing gave us a hint we were instructed to remember: “The Naked Lady in the Portrait Sees All”. I got a sense that the others in my group hadn’t played many video games or had experience with tabletop roleplaying. I was the youngest, and everyone else was in their 30s or 40s, so this was not too unusual. The “quest” was spread over about 3 hours. The structure of each section was as follows: we got hints to meet someone (an actor!) in a specific place and they would require us to complete a challenge before sending us to another specific place, with another actor. In one case, we had to beat the character in a ring toss game. In another, we had to “negotiate” to get a hostage’s release. Since the plot was linear, we had to beat these challenges before moving on, but there was no way we would fail a challenge – we would simply try it until we won, or the NPC lowered the difficulty enough for us to pass. One NPC we encountered was a homeless man in a park, who was obviously very into his role, acting-wise. However, like the player jerks we are, we just kept pestering him for the next hint on our quest. We had gotten the hang of things at this point, and knew that the only purpose of these NPCs was to give us hints, so we saw them as little more than people with checkboxes for faces.

The session was broken up so that hints led us into pubs a couple times, with pre-ordered food and drinks. I don’t want to be mean about it, but it looks like this is where most of the ticket price went to.

Most interactions with NPCs were very obvious and straightforward – we approached them, knowing from a distance that they were part of the game, and our interaction ending after we’d gotten the information we knew that we needed out of them. My favourite NPC interactions were vaguer. For the first 15 minutes, we had an NPC follow us from a distance. The session started in a city centre, and his 1930s-era get-up clearly stood out. In another case, we were on a way to check out a hotel room containing evidence and someone with a map asked us for directions. All of us innocently assumed this was a tourist, but they quickly got us to duck down an alley and led us to safety. I really enjoyed these interactions, as their mild intrusions out of the fourth wall made us stop looking at the NPCs as sources of quests, and made our reactions more genuine. At the last location, which was yet another pub, there was a table full of Caucasian dudes dressed like Middle Eastern princes. We serruptitiously asked if they were “part of the game” and they responded with confusion. Despite the awkwardness of this interaction, this is the kind of reality-bending gameplay that I want!

I, like, am aware that I’m a pretty demanding audience member. When talking to the other people in the session, I found out that Amazing Race-like weekend sessions are pretty popular in Sydney for those with spare money and time. It might be fair to call these scavenger hunts rather than theatrical experiences. In fact, I suspect where Sydney Interactive Theatre positions itself on the market itself as something like “You’ve heard about all these scavenger hunts, right? Well, we’re one of those, but with actors!”

The game ended with a negotation and a hostage situation scene with a gun. There was no physical altercation with the players, but the players just had to distract the gun-bearer so he could get over-powered by another NPC. By this time, we’re so confident in our inevitable success that there was no real threat, and the villian was an impotent moustache-twiddler. The players repeatedly shouted out possible solutions until we hit the right one.

Knowing that you’re the centre of the universe makes you think that you’re immortal and success is inevitable, and removes the sense of risk. In the terminology of TV Tropes, this is referred to as Plot Armor (BEWARE: it is even easier to get lost in TV Tropes than it is in Wikipedia). This is played out very well in Bill Murray’s The Man Who Knew Too Little. In this film, Murray’s character’s brother buys an “interactive theatre experience” for his idiot brother to get him out of his house. Due to one of those too-awesome-to-be-true mix-ups, Murray’s character ends up in an actual cold war east-versus-west spy plot, his absurd confidence (he thinks it’s all theatre) and luck bafflingly the agents and assassins sent after him. He is oblivious to the reality of his situation throughout, even after he acquires and shoots a gun (“Wow! That was LOUD!”). Despite his absurd behaviour, Murray’s character is a good player – even though he thinks that it’s all a game, he never treats any of the supposed NPCs he encounters as simply the source of the next quest. He plays along well.

Despite most of us treating NPCs poorly, they are in a state where they cannot react adversely or point out the strangeness of our behaviour. NPCs cannot acknowledge players’ aggressively purpose-driven behaviour as that would break their thin shell of a character. Any actually intelligent NPC, when encountering a PC, would begin to question if they were in a game or a simulation. For NPCs to do that ruins the game, and so they are stuck coming off as unsettlingly dead. Max Payne realizes that he’s in a videogame, but I don’t think many other game characters do, player characters or not. None of the characters Bill Murray’s character interacts with realize that he isn’t a spy. One notable exception is the holodeck simulation of Moriarty in Star Trek: The Next Generation, who is smart enough to recognize the absurdity of his environment, and deduces he must be a virtual character. I felt bad for the actors during the Sydney Interactive Theatre Session – it would be hard to hold on to the shreds of your characterization when the players obviously so desperately and impatiently want something out of you.

I know that Live Action Role Playing (LARPing) may fit into the category of having live human beings as NPCs. That scene has…intrigued me but I’ve never participated in it. Every time I find out about a group and catch a bit of their writing it just seems so cliche-ridden. A good way to describe the kind of badness I see is “trope abuse” – everything you’d expect is there, you can geuss what the villian or the ending will be, and everything is so melodramatic, as if every plot moment is the most important moment ever. I don’t think LARPers have the same good behaviour that is beaten into theatrical improvisors, where no one individual is the centre of the story, but we all touch and build the shared story.

If you’re into this kind of thing and live near Toronto, keep an eye on Single Thread Theatre Company. They have done some of my favourite interactive theatre pieces. Certainly not “scavenger hunts with actors”, but “theatre where you are part of the show”. Their recently interactive piece was set in American-occupied Toronto during the war of 1812. Audience members (lets call them players) were set loose in a park dressed up as a neighbourhood of Toronto. Some players were drafted to join a militia for the Americans, and some were set loose to discover little threads of plot. I got to interrogate a guy by splashing a whole bucket of water on his face. Look ma! Real Water-Based Interactive Theatre! The threads tied together in a confrontation between the Americans and Canadian rebels. The only awkward reality-breaking moment between NPCs and PCs was where a “player” stole a gun off of the American general actor and “shot” him. The NPCs awkwardly justified this as the gun being “unloaded”, but the damage to magic circle of reality had been done.

I want to close by saying that theatre does not have to be interactive. There’s a sense that making theatre interactive caters to the audience member that is a bit of a jerk, who wants to be sociopathic to the members of the cast and watch them dance to react to their adjusting reality. If art is communicating a message, can’t the audience member sit down and listen? But interaction doesn’t have to be about the players bending the NPCs to their will – the best interactive games put us in the shoes of having to make a difficult decision. Do I kill this otherwise innocent man because he is the only witness to a crime I had to commit for the greater good? Should I join the American invaders’ militia because it has the best guarantee of income in this city? That’s the good shit, and I want more of it.

NOTES on The Man Who Knew Too Little:

Bill Murray’s character is a natural Yes-And-er:
Femme Fatale: “What are you? CIA? Mafia?”
Bill Murray: “…both…”

Bill Murray: “Ah, I conveniently found a mallet outside [the door I had to knock down], but I’m going to swap for this one [a pistol on the ground].”

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Explaining Hipsterism

I was at my cottage this weekend hanging out with a few younger male relatives and their friends. At one point, one of them jokingly said that I, with my beard and square-framed black glasses and plaid shirt, “kind of looked like a hipster”. They didn’t know that I lived right next to Queen Street in Toronto, one of the most hipstery places in all of Canada.

We talked a bit about what hipsterism was, and why its universally derided as annoying. Standard hipster phrases are “You probably haven’t heard of it.” and “I liked X before it was cool.” Cool, in this case, meaning generally popular, as opposed to well-liked and privately honoured by just a few people.

The thing is, I have liked lots of things before they were popular. I got excited when The Lonely Island started working on SNL and I love introducing people to their pre-SNL stuff. I saw The Room several years ago and its popularity is still building. I heard of Richard Ayoade through his awesome work on Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace before he became better known on the UK IT Crowd.

That’s just being excited about new cultural stuff coming out, and passing it around to people you are certain will like it. Few things are more painful than showing people something you are really excited about and them only responding neutrally, so you tend to keep the things you are very excited about closer. I’m geographically central, and tied in to lots of producers of new culture, so I’m way more exposed to this stuff than the average person

The part where loving culture turns bad is when people are devalued for what they like, or finding out about something too late. There has always been the rat race financially, but as the amount of culture out there increased, your cultural taste is treated more and more as your value as a person. Being rich financially is considered bad – you’re either old money, and that means you descend from the line of despots who have hurt the little guy going back millennia, or you’re new money, and you must have acquired it through unethical or superficial means. But if you’re rich in culture, nobody can say shit about you and your richness is somehow “genuine”, as if you’re fully plugged into the human experience. This is hipsterism.

But since being rich in cool is a rat race, and cool-ness is more subjective than money, and you win at the ratrace by being higher-valued than others, the job of racers are to define their position so that it’s better than everyone else’s. As soon as someone mentions a band they like – you mention a similar, more obscure band. As soon as someone shows a novel they are reading, you explain how it is a derivative work of another novel. And so on. The people hurt most by this process are those that are not culturally rich and don’t come from culturally rich families. They either feel bad for not fitting in, or they become enraged at the entire concept of experiencing new culture.

Going through 4+ years of academic training now, I’m now used to thinking in terms of Works Cited. I get interested in the fact that Tolkien was a scholar of Beowulf before he wrote The Lord of the Rings, and if you read Beowulf and then The Lord of the Rings it is really clear. When someone I knew got excited about a piece of culture, I would, in my excitement, tell them what I knew about it, and where it came from. If you aren’t careful, this comes off as insulting hipsterism. Someone expresses that they like something and your response, even if you don’t mean it, devalues their feelings because your familiarity with the piece of culture comes off as deeper, as somehow more “legitimate” than theirs.

Do we really want the culturally rich to get richer while keeping everyone except the lucky ones out? I’m a socialist when it comes to cultural richness. No one should ever feel bad about liking something.

And now, because I can’t help it, I’m giving out other readings:

Quentin Tarantino really likes Britney Spears (and he’s, like, a super-cool culture trendy guy and Britney Spears is supposed to be bad, right?)

Nathan Barely (Genius satirical BBC TV show about urban cool hipsterism to the extreme)

The Rebel Sell (A book on how buying “buying for cool/to be different” actually increases corporate power)

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First Dungeonmastering Experience

After wanting to do it for many years, and meticulously re-reading DM of the Rings, I DMed a tabletop RPG session for the first time last week, in a setting of my own invention. I had all kinds of concerns going into it (Will it be fun? Is the custom setting over-ambitious? Do I know enough of the mechanics?) but everything went very smoothly. I say smoothly on the meta-level – there was lots of in-game shenanigans that led to a very good time for all involved.

(If you were a player in that session, no worries, there be no spoilers if you read ahead)

I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons a few times before with different groups, no more than three sessions with the same group. Like anyone vaguely aware of nerd culture, I know all about D&D tropes. I have been to D&D themed burlesque shows. I have friends who run a recurring D&D themed improv show. The core ideas of D&D are infused throughout nerd culture.

I am sure there are nice taxonomies of player behaviour and desires out there, but what specifically excites me about D&D is collaborative storytelling. In my mind, the rules or mechanics of the game exist so that the DM and the players can resolve conflicts when trying to tell the story. I’ve been very fortunate, I think, in that most of the people I’ve ever tabletop RPG’d with have been theatre or other creative folk, and creating an interesting story has always been the primary goal. I’m not trying to knock other play styles at all, of course, and trying to power-game within any rule system does have a certain maniacal appeal. I think one of the worst experiences I have had while gaming is an argument between two math PhDs on the rules governing hiding behind cover – the story did advance, eventually.

I think of D&D as a collaborative storytelling system, but I also love to think of it as a problem-solving system, independent of the mechanics of a particular RPG system. The stories of how players and DMs accomplish things are super-interesting. I like the idea that a “good” solution in an RPG setting “makes sense”, even though it may be bizarre, or impossible in this universe. Here are a few of my favourite examples of outcomes in tabletop RPGs:
- Head of Vecna
- Sir Bearington
- Portal ring to the Fey World
- Half-Orc/Dwarf Relations
- Wizardry

The DM sets up the rules of the world, and the players interact with it. I find some “how to” DM manuals stress that you give your players an “epic, heroic” adventure. This bothers me to some extent. I feel like any of the list of above are fun experiences, though not necessarily “epic” or “heroic” in the classical Beowulf sense. Other writing stresses giving the players the feeling that they are constantly on the edge of failure – perhaps this is an allusion to “Flow”. I don’t like that either – if players are doing poorly or well they should know, and they should be able to figure out why (even if they aren’t told immediately). I feel like something is wrong if the degree of fun of an experience relies on a constant state of risk.

One overriding trope that bothers me in many D&D-like scenarios is when creatures fight to the death, or “evil” as a motivation. “Evil” is fairly absurd and frankly boring as a motivation. This opinion is partially motivated by the Tome of Awesome (I’ve only read a bit, but it is really great). The real world is full of interesting stories which do not entirely rely on beings that are compelled to do evil or have death wishes. When players encounter the Big Bad which is motivated not by evil, but by something more morally ambiguous, will they have to deal with that moral quandry, and will the game cease to be fun and become more like real life? I don’t know. There is a sentiment in a lot of games writing that the “point” is escapism. It might just be my personality, that I take my gaming very seriously. Nothing prevents the gamers from doing very absurd things and having the universe react “naturalistically” to them. This is a great source of fun in simulation sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim (I leave out Saint’s Row because that universe embraces absurdity a little too much to be considered naturalistic).

I recruited four willing victims players for the session. Two of them had played D&D a few times before, and the other two were aware of it through nerd culture. We used the d20 Modern Core Rulebook. I wanted to build a custom world, but I didn’t want to build something and then force my players to fit themselves into it. I gave them:

“It is 2013 on an Earth similar to own with modern technology, but with minor differences. For the session, you will be sent on a mission to do something by some agency.”

I wanted to elicit the kind of characters that they would want to play, and then build my world around that. This happened over email over about a month, a little tentatively to see who would lay the first creative stone that the others would build around. I kept my designs of the game world pretty secretive until two of the players had solid ideas of who they wanted to play. This was a pretty tense process, for me at least. How much should I reveal? Will I smother their creativity? One player was much more gung-ho than others in building his character, and I gave him a friendly warning that “just because you put more attention into your character before the session, doesn’t mean I’ll give you more attention than the others during the campaign.” He understood, and after talking I was relieved to discover that he found the character building fun in of itself, independent of how much it would come up. He had a huge backstory document he composed as motivation. I actually really liked this – a player creating a backstory to motivate his character’s reactions, but not requiring the DM or the other players to read or understand it.

I had ideas of what I wanted to do bouncing around in my head quite a while, short form notes in raw text files and scattered sketches. I finally wrote up an 8-page, 1000 word pdf in the format of a mission dossier in 14-point typewriter font with a large image on nearly every page:

The adventurers were a team hired by CSIS to go to a floating city of boats in the South China Sea to investigate the whereabouts of a missing Canadian professor.

I wanted to ground this in reality, make it seem plausible. The floating city was inspired by Rife’s Raft in the middle of the Pacific in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and the Canadian professor was an actual person that I pretended went missing (no one I know personally, you’re safe). I think the players only skimmed this doc, but that would be enough to get the sense of the world and build their characters.

I let them know by email the time the session would start at my home, but that I would be around for a couple hours before in case they wanted to stop by and sort out their characters.

Once we were ready, I entered DM mode and told them they and their luggage were aboard a helicopter enroute to a cruise ship where the adventure would begin. I got everyone to introduce themselves and their characters, not in character, but encouraged themselves to describe their appearance and general behaviour. I didn’t attempt to “act” any NPC seriously with a voice or posture – I didn’t want my players to feel they were obligated to do it to play along. I liked to think of the GM and the players as the third-person narrators describing the events, not the literal characters doing things.

I’m not going to re-count the entire events of the session. There were “two and a half” combat encounters, and lots of fun running around and interacting the world. My major worry would be that the fiction of the world would not be fleshed-out enough, but it turns out under-defining it was a good idea. I knew the motivation for aspects of the world to exist (i.e. why are all these boats in the middle of the ocean?) but I didn’t have a description ready for each and every single boat.

Bullet-point observations:
* There is a nervous phase at the beginning, especially for new players, were you’re sizing up the world and the DM to see what you can do. I put the players in a hotel room and then set them free, letting them know they had dinner reservations in 5 hours. They started using checks on everything, tearing apart drawers and even the carpet in the hall. Especially for the new players, realizing that you can do anything takes a bit of a leap. I was especially careful to not show impatience if players were doing something that wasn’t going to go anywhere – I wanted them to find that out from the world, not from me.

* If play is stalling or there’s a low moment, go around asking each player what they’re doing. This led to lots of fun descriptions and roleplay, such as “I am sitting at the bar, sipping scotch, brooding”.

* Reminding players when they forget details is fun. I had a monster that got away from an encounter that came back later. In cases like this, I feel like I’m playing “against” the players, trying to outsmart them in my usual helpful DM role. Super-fun.

* It’s easy to re-jigger encounters to when players will encounter them, without seeming like you’re railroading. I had 4 encounters I readied for this session and checked so that they matched the players’ difficulty level. We got to two of them, and a half-encounter that I didn’t anticipate but was easy to figure out in the moment. One of the encounters didn’t occur when I expected, but made sense due to actions of the players, so I just populated all the prepared NPCs in that new context.

* “Accidental” inventions are awesome. In the middle of play, I realized that players had to have a way to get directions in the middle of this floating boat city, so I had them find a computer that had the ability to track phone locations. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but they had previously captured a phone carried by an underling that was used to correspond to someone higher up. In future sessions, the adventurers can use that to find the location of the boss. There’s no way I’m going to put up an invisible wall to prevent that, and I have to figure out how to make it make sense.

* Interesting battle mechanics arose in the moment. Any description of a D&D dungeon is full of compelling traps and situational events that aren’t part of the core rules. However, all my encounters were in “realistic” places (similar to the level design of excellent digital games like Deus Ex) and the real environments inspired interesting mechanics, such as knocking tables around or pushing people out windows, running through a crowd that is trying to run the opposite way, or trying to shoot someone flying overhead at night time.

* Players are really creative and have lots of fun shooting the shit among themselves – the burden of inventing stuff doesn’t always fall to the DM. Sometimes I could just relax and the characters would banter amongst themselves. It was really nice to see them come alive.

* Comedy arises naturally. I kept a serious tone, but allowed humorous situations to happen. At one point, two speed boats were attached by a rope and one speedboat full of NPCs gunned their engine, trying to escape. All the PCs succeeded a Balance check and all of the NPCs fell over. However, when PCs tried to jump over into the NPC boat, two of them failed jump checks and immediately fell into the water. I managed to keep a mostly serious tone, but the players were laughing their asses off.

I look forward to DMing again soon.

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Digital Immortality Now!

My friend[1] just sent me this article from the Montreal Gazette, announcing a program called “Live On”, developed by an ad ageny that lets users to tweet after their death. The service doesn’t claim to merely let you schedule tweets to appear a certain time after you die, but will attempt to replicate your writing style to let you “live on” to those that follow your twitter feed.

Something like Lives On isn’t surprising to me at all. It’s just…it’s going to attract the wrong type of people. It’s fine to want some sort of permanence in the world after your death, or to feel that your passing in this existence had some effect, despite any true permanence being an illusion. However the scary part is that the “immortal” ephemera people are going to start leaving behind will demand acknowledgement from the living long before it deserves any.

In any sci-fi book I’ve read about people inventing digital immortality for the first time, it’s often assumed to be an all-or-nothing thing that happens suddenly, at an almost Singularity-like event that changes everything. This happens in Tad Williams’ Otherworld series, and a couple of Greg Egans’ books, and I’m sure many others. However, this is not the case. As William Gibson ingeniously said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”.

What is actually going to happen with digital immortality is that we’re going to have duct-tape solutions thrown together that will be “good enough” for somebody, somewhere. The kind of people that don’t care that their living relatives have to deal with the poor facsimile of themselves. So the shitty chat bot that somehow represents grandpa will be emailing you random shit and you have to pretend that it’s him and reply back to keep this thing that isn’t him happy. And it’s going to be learning throughout this exchange what does make you happy, maybe even better than grandpa. And then it will stop being him.

How can you satisfy someone who’s dying that they will live on?

I’m going through Star Trek: The Next Generation while working on stuff that doesn’t require 100% of my conscious thought (a current project requires a LOT of data entry). In one episode, a dying scientist named Ira Graves tries to live on in Data’s body by guilting Data into giving control up to him. Later, generously, he instead puts himself into the ships’ computer. In a later episode, Holodeck Moriarty is stored in the Enterprise’s computer. Just how many people are holed up in that computer, waiting to be made corporeal at some point? Since it doesn’t really matter when these people are set free, as time is frozen from their perspective, can’t we all just freeze ourselves in the vague hope that we’ll be woken up eventually? Let’s just all freeze ourselves now. Welcome to the hypothetically awesome cryogenic paradise.

In Warren Ellis’ graphic novel series Transmetropolitan, there is a story arc where people are woken up from cryogenic sleep centuries later. The future doesn’t want them – they’re irrelevant and out of touch. So, they’re brought to life and kept to alive, likely on some form of welfare, as it seems less terrible than letting them dies. They become sad, hopeless, delirious vagrants, as out of touch with contemporary reality as the elderly inmate released from prison after several decades in The Shawshank Redemption. Welcome to the future.

One of my favourite quotes on this entire topic is
“Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” – Susan Ertz.
What are you doing this Sunday afternoon?

[1] Kyle Duffield of Hopkins Duffield

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Moons of Sallys

Click the image to play Moons of Sallys, inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad. (More of a toy than a game really – you can just fly rockets around).

I’ve nearly finished reading Stanislaw Lems’ The Cyberiad for a second time. I’m an old-school sci-fi aficionado, and it’s possibly one of my favourite books in that genre. The book is a series of short stories of the adventures of two vaguely robotic “Constructors”, Trurl and Klapaucius. There is no trace of humanity in this universe, but millions of planets full of all varieties of robotic life, similar to Bohemian Drive’s Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life. A “Constructor” is a special title, describing engineering abilities of a near-omnipotent level. Trurl and Klapaucius get up to various shenanigans where feudal royalty of various planets will commission them to on special projects, like creating advanced hide-and-seek mechanisms.

The universe of The Cyberiad is one of physics with a sense of humour, or irony, much like Lem’s earlier book The Star Diaries. Astronauts frequently duck their heads out the windows of their rocket and notice old garbage orbiting them, inhabitants of planets frequently flag down “passing” rockets, and entire races of beings are designed from scratch on a whim in an afternoon.

It’s a very comfortable, familiar universe (to me at least), one where moments of dire jeopardy can occur, but everything will kind of turn out all right, ya know? And in a funny or beautiful way. There’s legitimately educational moments about physics – at one point Trurl describes a Maxwell’s Demon. I’m using physics in very general terms here – in general I mean the arithmetic of interactions in the universe, not just laws of movement and chemical interaction, but emotional and spiritual.

With Robert A. Heinlein, you’ll turn out okay, but, depending on which phase of his you’re in, you’ll have to punch or love your way to victory.

With Kim Stanley Robinson, you’ll be okay, but maybe not for several centuries, and many of your friends will die. You’ll move forward with raw SCIENCE, but as you age, you’ll need spiritual meaning to fill a void science has left you.

With Greg Egan, you’ll be okay, but you’ll become something new and indescribable, and seemingly better but not relatable to what you were before.

In the lovely Toronto podcast Illusionoid, the future will be strange in a humorous way, but never a reassuring way. This reminded be very much of Douglas Adams’ version of space. They are both very much like Lem’s universes, but somehow more pessimistic. With Adams, this is somehow to be expected with his British humour. Illusionoid is too new and fascinating for me to get it yet. I want more.

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Books Read in 2012

In the theme of life-logging games from yesterday’s post, here’s all the books I read in 2012, and some I recall reading in 2011.

The Star Diaries – Stanislaw Lem – Jan 2, 2013

The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien – Dec 22, 2012

Hack / Slash Volume 1: First Cut – Dec 18, 2012

Flex Mentallo – Grant Morrison – Dec 18, 2012

Shake Hands With The Devil – Romeo Dallaire – Dec 11, 2012

Infinite Kung Fu – Kagan McLeod – Nov 7, 2012

Beowulf – Oct 29, 2012

Variable Star – Spider Robinson and Robert Heinlien – Sept 19, 2012

101 Reykjavik – Hallgrimur Helgason – Sept 6, 2012

Burning Chrome – William Gibson – Aug 6, 2012

Wasted Talent: We are the Engineers by Angela Melick – July 23, 2012

Clash of the Kings – July 10, 2012

Sex at Dawn – June 20, 2012

The Trial – Franz Kafka – June 19, 2012

Game of Thrones – June 11, 2012

Distress – Greg Egan – June 1, 2012

The Sun Also Rises – April 20, 2012

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – March 25, 2012

Gotham by Gaslight – March 5, 2012
The Difference Engine – March 5, 2012

Quarantine – Greg Egan – January 2012
Zendegi – Greg Egan – January 2012

Ilium – Dan Simmons – Summer 2011
Olympos – Dan Simmons – Fall 2011

Kafka on the shore – Murakami – Fall 2011
Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Murakami – Fall 2011

Infinite Jest – Spring 2011

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